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Chinule takes mathematics to teenage prisoners

By Chinonso Ihekire
15 May 2021   |   3:05 am
When Cynthia Chinule first walked into the enclosure at the infamous Port Harcourt Remand Home, in the Borokiri axis south of the state, the 29-year-old mathematician never envisaged the adventure she was walking into.

Cynthia Chinule

When Cynthia Chinule first walked into the enclosure at the infamous Port Harcourt Remand Home, in the Borokiri axis south of the state, the 29-year-old mathematician never envisaged the adventure she was walking into.

Unnerved by the low-English literacy of the inmates – aged between seven and 17 – Chinule made a spontaneous decision to salvage the communication barrier in the juvenile centre. For the past five years, this choice has kept her using local languages such as Pidgin, in teaching high-school mathematics to incarcerated teenagers – a move, which sparked the development of the students by an impressive margin.  
“It was in March 2016, when we first walked into the Remand Home. We were three who came together to do a project from the US Consulate’s Carrington Youth Fellowship Initiative (CYFI) Project. As a mathematician, I was working in the capacity of teaching maths. I had a colleague who was teaching entrepreneurial skills; because that is her area. I had another colleague teaching social behavioural change. The very day we came with the questionnaires for our pre-test, to understand the students before teaching them. The warden in charge of the remand home said that they wouldn’t be able to read it. And it was true. I went back to restructure my curriculum to be able to teach using Pidgin; because it was the general language they spoke.”

Cynthia’s project proved successful beyond the CYFI ambit, as the students improved in their understanding of mathematics. This nudged her towards her sustaining the initiative after the CYFI halted the project – moving it to Lagos permanently. She continued to teach the students with her personal funds and under the moniker, Project Reform.
“I do physical and online tutorials. I have my organisation, MathsAfrique International. I have other jobs I do, which are basically tutorials. From my income, I fund these projects. I, sometimes, receive unusual donations from friends and family. I remember that in December, the mother of one student whom I teach privately actually contributed in funding the Christmas party for the kids at the remand home.
For her, the vision is, “To have a ripple effect. If possible, expand across the country. Part of what we have been doing is to provide legal support for some of the children. Now, we are working on helping them with their future academic funding,” she explained.
Chinule also argues that use of local languages should be explored by the government across the federation. According to her, the adoption of the languages helps to bridge the learning gap, as the method actually helps students to better understand difficult subjects, such as Mathematics, Accounting, and so on.
“Some teachers are faced with the frustration of English not being effective as a language for communication with some students. The use of indigenous languages should be explored in areas where there is a homogenous group of students who are either rural or there are groups of students who are not very fluent in the understanding of English, especially in some supposedly difficult subjects. When you are talking about indigenous languages, the Pidgin is part of it. In an area like that we can explore using their local language for effective communication.
“The use of English would not entirely be replaced, especially where the students already understand English. In those areas where students are more of English speakers, it would not be effective to use Pidgin. If you go to Makoko or Ajegunle where there is buzz around Pidgin, it would be. First of all, there has to be an assessment of the students and what language of communication would be more effective for them,” Chinule posited.
Actually, Nigeria’s educational policy, enacted in 2004, directs the use of the language of immediate environment of children as the lingua for teaching pre-primary school pupils. However, nearly two decades after, the policy remains largely blurred from reality as moribund implementation and a lack of awareness have greatly limited its effectiveness, researchers from the University of Ibadan, Oladotun Olagbaju and Francis Akinsowon noted.

Ripple Effect
From the way her pitch rose and her tempo mellowed over the phone call, I could tell that this part of the subject matter struck a soft spot.
“They became our friends and that’s the amazing thing. They could tell us the truth. Some of them still call even after they have been released.”
Chinule and her two-man army, composed of her CYFI colleagues, Ngozi Sam Orji and Chinwe Egboka respectively, have created several memorable experiences from their exploits at Borokiri. From their entrance at the Remand Home in 2016, till their most recent tutorial a few days ago, it has been a tapestry of events that both inspire and reward Chinule for her selfless service.
“There was a lot of bonding. I have a book I wrote, titled Academics Without Tears, where I shared why they should pursue their academic careers and how to be successful at it. We encouraged some of them with musical talents to start writing songs. I gave all of them the book; they all took my contact.
“In fact, one of my students is in Lagos; he was put in the remand home for murder. But now, he has been released and is teaching mathematics in a tutorial, while awaiting his WAEC exams. This guy actually committed the murder, but it was in self-defense.
“What made me close to tears was that he has been released since last year and, now, he says that he is focused on ensuring that he doesn’t repeat any crime, and, secondly, he is pursuing his academics. There is nothing more fulfilling than that. Almost every two days, he calls and we talk. He has never asked me for money. That is a sign of a change in behaviour. For me, to understand that someone has changed his character is a big deal.”

A strained childhood
Chinule’s philanthropy has its roots buried in her stressful childhood. Amid her struggles, she developed empathy for people that ran so deep that it became a power surge for her charitable endeavours. From the smoky streets of Port Harcourt where she sold fried pastries to partly fundraise her tuition, to bagging a first class degree and a Post-graduate Chevening scholarship in a British university, Chinule has remained restless for success – a concept she defines on her own terms.
“I have this unexplainable passion to help people. Sometimes, you don’t know that people are having a hard time with life. I am an only child, and life was rosy, to an extent, until I lost my dad when I was 15; from financial lack, to me not being able to afford university education – I was literally dropping out. Somehow, everything went down the drain and I had to start seeing life from a different perspective. It kind of nudged me to help people.
“I remember one particular term, after my dad died, we had to sell his car to pay my school fees. I was literally going to drop out at that point. Before university, I was frying chin-chin and working at supermarkets to raise money for my university. My mum had a shop where she was selling second-hand clothes, at the time. I was also taking from her and going to sell. I was making beads and selling. I was being entrepreneurial so I could save up money for my first-year studies. When I started school, I gained the MTN scholarship, which, for me, was very huge. It took out the financial burden from me, and I had to concentrate on my academics. The scholarship was worth N200, 000 Naira, annually, and it was able to cover my school fees, accommodation and it sustained every other expenditure I incurred for my upkeep throughout the year.
“To really say I have done well, someone must have benefited from it. I should have helped someone’s life become better. People know that I can give others my last. In UNIZIK, I had lecturers who were referring students to me to teach, for free. When I finished my degree and I saw students struggling with studying maths, I would go and run tutorials for them every week. I found out that people actually needed this help. I was scared about people’s academic excellence, especially those who were underprivileged and could not get quality education. Also, what Pastor Chris Oyakhilome says motivates me: ‘Real success is impacting the world with the investment of your personality.’ I always wanted to be successful.”

Quest For Change
Chinule has always nursed a passion to become Nigeria’s Education Minister. Her motivations are beyond financial gain, as is common with many individuals. Rather, it is a passionate quest to revamp the country’s educational sector and propel it to its peak.
Since her university days at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University (UNIZIK), Awka, to her journey through University College, London, down to her projects in Nigeria, Chinule’s desire has been to teach in a way that everyone can understand. Her foreign travels, exposure, and academic accolades have also never been an incentive for migration. Unlike many professionals who exit the country to seek coloured pastures abroad, Chinule’s travels have been to broaden her knowledge on how to help improve the educational sector in Nigeria.

“The truth is, if I am leaving Nigeria, it is to gain more knowledge to be able to pursue the things I am passionate about. Anything I go to learn outside Nigeria, it is for the greater good; to help us boost our educational system. I have the dream of being the Education Minister someday. I have had that dream for over 10 years now. Whatever takes me outside, for any reason, is to gain the needed skills, knowledge and network.”
Apart from launching her YouTube Channel dubbed, ‘Cynthymathematics – The Mathematician’, where she teaches maths, she has also trademarked a math game, in Nigeria, called ‘Math Star’, developed to help sharpen people’s maths skills. The multi-level game, as you would have imagined, is scheduled for release in five local languages, namely: Igbo, Pidgin, Yoruba, Hausa and English.
The mother-of-two continues to drive ‘Project Reform’, despite her funding and manpower shortfalls, with grit and determination to achieve her dreams. She treats the inmates like her own children, wary of trusting “just anyone” to help her in her work; as “we also want someone with a reputable character. We don’t want to expose the kids anyhow. For example, we don’t make phone calls. We don’t buy things secretly for them. And we don’t want someone who would come and just leave.”
When she is not consciously trying to embark on nationalistic educational exploits, Chinule enjoys being glue-eyed to detective movies or cooking and conjuring up ideas about a cooking show she hopes to create soon. She remains another example of a simple individual trying to do the most to improve Nigeria’s socio-economic welfare, a feat, which has been wrongfully ascribed to ‘only’ the political office holders in the government.